The Less-Is-Better Effect: Why We Sometimes Prefer the Smaller Ice-Cream

George J. Ziogas

How the bias works and how to avoid it

What is it?

The less-is-better effect describes our tendency to prefer the lesser or smaller of two options, but only when those options are presented separately. When we consider both options together, our preferences reverse and the less-is-better effect disappears.

The seminal study

The term “less-is-better effect” was coined in 1998 by behavioral scientist Christopher Hsee. In one of his experiments, participants were split into 3 groups and asked to imagine that they were on the beach at Lake Michigan and in the mood for ice cream.

One group was told that there was a vendor nearby serving 8 oz scoops of Haagen-Dazs ice cream in 10 oz cups, one group was told that the vendor was selling 7 oz scoops served in 5 oz cups, and one group was told there were two vendors on the beach, one selling each option.

Everyone was then asked to state how much they would be willing to pay for a serving. When the ice cream helpings were evaluated separately, people were willing to pay more for the smaller but overfilled cup of ice cream than they were for the larger but underfilled one. However, when people were able to evaluate both portions side by side, the effect disappeared and the larger ice cream was valued more.

In another experiment, participants were given the choice between two sets of dinnerware: Set A which included 40 pieces, nine of which were broken, and set B, which included 24 pieces, all of which were intact. Set A was clearly superior as it included 31 intact pieces, but when the sets were evaluated separately, participants were willing to pay a higher price for set B. In a joint evaluation of both options, however, participants were willing to pay a higher price for set A.

This wasn’t the first time that such an effect had been reported. Five years earlier, a group of volunteers had been presented with a choice of two candidates in a hypothetical congressional race: Candidate A, who would create 5000 jobs but had been convicted of a misdemeanor, and Candidate B, who would create 1000 jobs and had a clean criminal record. When asked to evaluate the candidates separately, people preferred Candidate B, but, when asked to evaluate the candidates together, people preferred Candidate A.

A similar effect has since been found in people choosing between job offers, financial settlements, job candidates, CD changers, dictionaries, and baseball card lots.

How it works

The less-is-better effect is just one example of how our judgment can be swayed by context, framing, and emotions. For example, a silver medal can seem worse than bronze because silver reminds us that we just missed out on the top spot, whereas bronze reminds us that we almost didn’t get a medal at all.

When we decide to go for the lesser option, we do so because of the context it’s presented in. In the case of the ice cream experiment, a larger amount may be objectively better, but when it’s in an even larger cup, the portion looks stingy and we feel cheated. By contrast, the smaller scoop stuffed into an even smaller cup looks generous and we feel spoiled. If both servings had gone over the sides of their cups, there probably wouldn’t have been a less-is-better effect.

Another core component of the less-is-better effect is the evaluability of the attributes we are judging. Some attributes are hard to evaluate independently because we don’t know how good a given value is without having something to compare it to. Some attributes are easy to evaluate independently because we do know how good the value is. When we judge something in isolation, therefore, we tend to focus on the features that are easily evaluated.

In the case of a cup of ice cream, it’s relatively difficult to determine how good a serving of 8 oz (or 7 oz) is, but it’s much easier to evaluate how full a cup is, so we simplify our evaluations by taking the size of the cup as a reference point and comparing it to the amount of ice cream. The resulting attribute — overfilled versus underfilled — is easy to evaluate, and most people find an overfilled serving more appealing. But when the ice creams from both vendors are put side-by-side, we can easily see that the underfilled cup contains more ice cream than the overfilled one.

In the case of the voting experiment, most participants — who knew little about employment statistics — didn’t know whether or not to be impressed by the fact that a candidate would create 1,000 jobs or 5,000 jobs, but a clean criminal record was obviously good. Once they saw the two candidates side-by-side, however, the bigger jobs number had more impact.

This doesn’t mean that choosing “less” is the wrong thing to do; it might actually be qualitatively better. For example, when people are given the choice between two jobs — Job A which is tedious but pays $70,000 a year, and Job B which is interesting but pays $60,000 a year — they tend to prefer Job B when the offers are presented separately, but when the job offers are put side by side, they prefer Job A.

This may initially make sense — who wouldn’t want to earn $10,000 more a year? However, though we are well aware that a tedious job will make us less happy than an interesting one, we have a tendency to overpredict the amount of happiness that an extra $10,000 will give us. We would probably be happier with Job B.

How to avoid it

The less-is-better effect only applies in situations where we are presented with one option at a time, so the best way to get around it is to be a comparison shopper and compare your options side-by-side before committing to anything. But remember, sometimes less is actually better.

In one of Hsee’s experiments, participants were told about a clothing department store that sold coats ranging in price from $50 to $500 and scarves ranging in price from $5 to $50. Then they were asked to evaluate a present — either a $45 wool scarf or a $55 wool coat — bought by a fictional friend from that store. People evaluating the presents individually preferred the less expensive scarf. In a recent replication study, the replication of this one experiment failed because even the people who viewed the presents jointly preferred the scarf.

Therefore, in the words of the authors of the first study, “if gift givers want their gift recipients to perceive them as generous, it is better for them to give a high-value item from a low-value product category … rather than a low-value item from a high-value product category”.

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